Meet the librarians – and book borrowers – of the Calais Jungle

In the middle of the Calais migrant camp, there is a book-filled haven of peace

19 September 2015

8:00 AM

19 September 2015

8:00 AM

Sikander and I are sitting at a small table in a small shed. The shed is filled floor-to-ceiling with books: chick lit, thrillers and a neat set of Agatha Christies line the shelves, alongside a large atlas, a few dictionaries and grammars, and the thin green spines of children’s learning-to-read books. More books spill out of boxes stacked in the corner, and pens, notepads, bags of clothes, a globe, a guitar and a game of Battleships are useful flotsam. We are in Jungle Books, a library which British volunteer Mary Jones set up a few weeks ago in the Calais migrant camp known as ‘The Jungle’.

Sikander, a lean Afghan, tells me that the last book he took out was about starting a small business. He tells me about the restaurant he has set up in the camp and the new one he is planning. He is fizzing with energy and ideas, such as introducing vouchers which people who want to help can buy and give to those in need. Sikander segues from plans for his restaurant to plans for the library — the extension they will build, the films they will screen, the discussions they will host. Some 50 of the camp’s 3,000 or so migrants are regulars at the Jungle Books but Sikander is sure more will come if there’s space to sit and browse. ‘I’m just helping Mary,’ he says, when I ask how he is involved, ‘Of course I have to help her, just as she helps us.’

While we’ve been talking, a young Sudanese man called Babiker has been engrossed in a novel by Jean Plaidy. He asks a volunteer, ‘Can I take it with me?’ There is no issuing system, no dates stamped on the front page, and happy assents meet any requests to take books out. The volunteer, Bill, tells Babiker that reading Jean Plaidy when he was younger sparked an interest in history. For Babiker, Jean Plaidy represents his dream of reading English books in England. He would like to study in the UK and asks me, ‘Is it expensive?’

Tuition fees don’t feature in Plaidy’s books, and I watch Babiker’s face close with disappointment as I try to explain them. Mohammed, who has been hovering nearby, joins our conversation. ‘So it is impossible for us,’ he says flatly. Mohammed was studying maths and physics in Sudan and talks about how much he would like to join the physics community in France. The last book he read here was a history of Sudan, and he wishes the library had books about Linux programming.

When Mohammed says he would also like there to be a laptop so he could access the internet, I laugh and tell him the same thing is happening in the UK: people increasingly go to libraries to get on the internet rather than for a book. At Jungle Books, Mary is responding to demand; she has managed to source a few laptops and is getting a generator and 4G router to provide Wi-Fi.

Internet access is just one of Mary’s many plans for the library, for while Jungle Books is a space for books, it is above all a space for people. She tells me, ‘Ask anyone here what they want and they tell you they want a normal life. This library can lend a semblance of normality to their lives. It’s a place where people can drop in and have a chat, maybe play a bit of music, not only read books.’

A man called Abraham picks up a guitar and gently picks out a tune, explaining to me that the instrument he played in Sudan was similar but had just one string and a smaller body. The strum of the guitar, the rustle of turning pages, and the soft hum of conversation make the library a peaceful respite from the hot tumult of the camp. I’m told that more instruments are coming and they are hoping to start music lessons before long.

There are already daily French lessons. Before picking up the guitar, Abraham was hunched over a French schoolbook while Mohammed helped with his pronunciation of vowels. ‘I want to speak French so I can stay in France,’ Abraham says. When I ask him what books he would like to have in the library, he lists: French-Arabic dictionaries, French vocab books, French grammar books, and short books in French. This Francophilia seems to be a sentiment shared by many; according to Sikander, when people come to the library and see there aren’t many French books, they tend to go away again.

Most of the men who come to the library speak little English. I am taken aback when a man who has been flicking through various novels for at least half an hour, including classics like Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, settles on a thin picture book about kittens. When I ask him if he really likes cats, he shrugs, mumbles a thank you, and leaves. Once I see he has barely enough English to say thanks, I can see why he hasn’t gone for Steinbeck, but the fact that he’s spent so long looking at books he can’t yet read speaks volumes about his hope — hope for a time when he will be able to read them all. Books are at their most potent here; each volume feels heavy with hope for a better time to come. The books here don’t just mean stories and information, they represent dreams, and people here need to dream.

The future, at least of Jungle Books itself, is bright. People have volunteered to build an extension — more space for teaching, distributing clothes, and discussions. Sikander is especially enthusiastic about the latter: ‘We are all from different countries, but if we can all sit together, we can understand each other, learn from each other and make friendships. That way we will finish a lot of problems in the Jungle.’ He says he would like a space where one evening he could give a talk about the history of Afghanistan and then, another time, listen to someone talking about the problems in Eritrea or Syria. He points out the need for migrants to realise they all share the same problems. ‘This talk I would give is like my book.’ He gestures towards Mohammed: ‘Like the history of Sudan is his book. I just need to get people to listen.’

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

For more information about Jungle Books, including how to donate, see spectator.co.uk/junglebooks

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Show comments
  • Gilbert White

    We built libraries in their own countries for them and they let them rot.

  • Margaret Jones

    As an ex-librarian who used to work in an African country I can only say that the majority of library users were those who appreciated them beyond words. I think we, in more privileged societies, sometimes forget this, forget the value of libraries. And let’s be clear, it is not the library users that tear them down…. May this pop up library go from strength to strength.

    • Gilbert White

      Typical white guilt ridden puke trying to pull rank on experience . You are a reader read Theroux and his description of the library in Malawi.

      • Ray Spring

        Theroux, on Africa is brilliant. All wets should read him. Libraries neglected. Railway engines and rolling stock derailed and left for dead, for years. No attempt to put it back on the rails. And that is the trouble with Africa. The White Man left.

    • thomasaikenhead

      Whatever the circumstances, surely literacy and a love of literature are a good thing?

    • Child_of_Thatcher

      I agree may it go from strength to strength and may they go home!

    • anotherjoeblogs

      you must be extremely concerned about Africans and libraries to join disqus and make this your first comment, Margaret Jones. You even have a very librarian kinda name,too, if I may be bold enough to comment. Are you peeping over your butterfly glasses at the monitor as you type, Margaret Jones ?

  • mecha-rigsby

    Is this meant to be spoof on a puff piece about the Calais migrants that you might see in the Graun? Or is it actually serious?

    • Bonzo

      Clearly a spoof piece. Emily was kind enough to put in a few clues.
      E.g. ‘I want to speak French so I can stay in France’, said Abraham: current abode the Jungle.

      Or: “Tuition fees don’t feature in Plaidy’s books, and I watch Babiker’s face close with disappointment as I try to explain them”. Damn, no free university education then.

      • Gilbert White

        No spoof part of the internationalist projection. Similar article appeared in The New Yorker. The question is how do these people do what they do with no limit to their time when the rest of us are working for own children?

    • Blindsideflanker

      Indeed, instead of getting editorials about why Hungary should be supported in its actions to defend its borders and uphold the rule of law, from the Spectator , we get guardian puff pieces.

      Brietbart apart, the scribblers squatting in the territory of the political right have been very limp-wristed about the defence of only sort of principle from a national a sovereignty point of view. Tim Stanley , the token right presence on Question Time was pathetic last night.

  • Smiffy51

    Is this meant to make us feel good about these young men, who are determined to enter our country illegally and live off us taxpayers?

    • Shorne

      If they are illegal immigrants they can’t claim benefits.

      • Child_of_Thatcher

        Until discovered at which point they claim and ask legal aid too to fight deportation

        • Shorne

          Not exactly they then have to claim asylum
          Legal aid has been cut right across the board.
          Human rights claims under Article 8 (family and private life) are no longer eligible for public funding.
          Read this

          • peter6218

            Thank goodness for that . Not so many parasitic lawyers living off the hard working tax payers money.

    • mr_fatty

      I’m relieved to know you pay your taxes. I thought the archetypal Tory employed lawyers and accountants to help him avoid having to do such things.

  • Bonkim

    Mary would be well advised to stay home and not raise hope amongst these illiterate illegal migrants. They will bite the hands that feed them at the first opportunity.

    • Jonathan

      Exactly. Once the kid velvet gloves approach fails, and the “special guests” start to throw a wobbly, and those rather virtuous and idealistic welcomers realise their huge mistake, library books will be an irrelevant detail.

      And I am not sure that the iron fist that DOES eventually come into play won’t be under the direction and control of the eu 12 star flag, and that it wont necessarily be syrians and somalians and eriteans that feel the weight of it either.

  • Cyril Sneer

    Lovely story but I don’t care, they need to go home.

    • Shorne

      I read an interview with teenage Syrian refugee who said most wanted to go home and wished that someone would just, somehow, stop the war.

      • Child_of_Thatcher

        So no need to pass through all those safe countries to reach Calais then

        • Shorne

          The interviewee was in Germany which has taken 800,000 refugees, there are 4000 at Calais, the UK has taken about 1250 Syrian refugees since 2011. UKIP supporter are you?

          • Cyril Sneer

            Most of these ‘refugees’ are not Syrian and are not fleeing war.

            I presume you haven’t seen the figures? What say you about the majority who are not from Syria and are not fleeing war?

          • Shorne

            I’d be happy to see your figures, unless they are from the Daily Mail or similar. Refugees come from Syria, Eritrea, South Sudan, Afghanistan and other places that are extremely dangerous. As for Germany they are welcoming them so why are you bothered?

          • peter6218

            The German government and media elite are welcoming them because they are great believers in replacing the present German population with another people. Merkel ,Schroeder etc typical German politicians with no children.

          • Shorne

            If you were to say Aryan instead of German we could all tell where you are coming from. Here the real reason why they are welcomed

          • peter6218

            They are welcomed by the German elite who were re educated after the war to hate their own land and people by the usual suspects of the Frankfurt school mob

          • Shorne

            More of the same I see.

  • Mark Frost

    I really couldn’t care less to be honest.. The majority of the ‘refugees’ at Calais have absolutely no interest in self-improvement. Their aim is to reach our shores and live a life of luxury, funded by me and you, the taxpayer. Let me ask you the following: Are there no libraries in their country of origin? Are there no libraries in France, where they are safe and well? This piece is pointless in all honesty and shouldn’t have been published. If it was an attempt to pull at the heartstrings, then I’m afraid, Emily, you’ve failed dismally.

  • stephengreen

    Shame these people do not ‘fizz with ideas’ in Sudan, Afghanistan, Eritrea, rather than trying to put a gloss on their admittance to a country that increasingly wants nothing to do with them.

  • John Alexander-Finch

    congratulations all on this spectacularly xenophobic comments section

    quite the party

    • GB

      Well, you can always join a better company: http://www.theguardian.com/uk.
      There you can share your pretentious sentimentalities and your fictitious compassion that brings no solution to the problem but looks so nice.

    • Ray Spring

      No. I am a Refugee. Refugees have a difficult time adjusting and building a new life in their new country.
      I am a Refugee from Birmingham, England. My home has been destroyed by the ‘let ’em all come brigade’. So I had to leave. Machine gun murders and race riots are now normal in Brum. My view now is not to let the horde come to my new country. God help England.

    • Cyril Sneer

      So you’re unable to see why people would not subscribe to the ‘let ’em all in’ narrative.

      And so you call them xenophobic.

      Hilarious mr one post profile.

  • GB

    Oh, do they read books and have libraries? How perfectly
    romantic they are! I always though they prefer cut each other throats (isn’t
    that also romantic?). But enlightened by the article as I am at present, I find
    them almost humane and, indeed, I need to add how much I appreciate that they
    find time for books, busy as they are weighting jihad all over the world, our
    cities including. It needless to add that if you want to find somewhere a
    muslim already living in Britain, you’ll find him in the National Gallery or in
    your local library occupied reading Mill, Bentham and Russell or let say
    Voltaire for example. You can also find them in one of our cathedrals listening
    to Handel’s Messiah or Bach’s Mass in b
    minor. They obviously appreciate gothic architecture and admire baroque

    By the way, how bad the propaganda nowadays became – it has really
    gone to dogs. With all that knowledge about psychology we’ve got now, and all
    that logical education we give our students, nobody would suppose that somebody
    would produce such a crap article to convince (?) anyone but a teenager. I am
    afraid that propaganda is yet another of the fields in our lives that has been
    neglected by our society. I’m afraid it’s almost as bad as our education.

    • Shorne

      Two points arising from this rubbish. More Muslims are killed by Muslims than anybody else, paranoid lies about the whole Muslim World wanting to unleash Jihad on the West are exactly that, lies. I worked in a Library for a few years, each evening the reference library would fill up with African and Asian young people who had been sent their by their parents to do their homework or just read.
      I see you were being an apologist for the Nazis a few days ago.

      • Gilbert White

        Muslims and Nazis?

        • Shorne

          Your point is?

      • Child_of_Thatcher

        Yes 7/7 and the WTC attacks and the Madrid bombings all carried out by Nazis in false flag attacks no doubt.

        • Shorne

          No silly, they were done by a handful of jihadists, 30 muslims died in the WTC.

      • CalUKGR

        Shorne, you must stop waving around that Godwin card. It undermines every argument you try to make.

        • Shorne

          “Godwin’s law itself can be abused as a distraction, diversion or even as censorship, fallaciously miscasting an opponent’s argument as hyperbole when the comparisons made by the argument are actually appropriate”
          After all it was promulgated by an American lawyer.
          ‘GB’ was discussing the logistics of the Holocaust and said of one aspect,
          ‘worst it still keeps Germans accountable for what they did.’ my remark was wholly accurate.

          • peter6218

            Two countries seem to be erecting larger barriers to prevent their present populations being overwhelmed. Hungary is attracting the opprobrium of the liberal MSM whereas another country which has built open air prisons for its illegal migrant population seems to have a charmed media exposure. Any reason for that Shorne ? What is your opinion as to this repressive country ?


          • Shorne

            Well now a glance at your comment history shows how much time you spend trawling the internet for items that support your anti-Semitic agenda which is epitomised by your calling the Holocaust a’ massive lie’.However you asked for my opinion. Israel is a country the size of Wales with a population less than that of greater London. It was originally conceived as a Jewish (I stress Jewish) homeland by the San Remo Conference in 1920 and eventually established as that by a UN vote, although it only occupies 18% of the territory originally set aside for the homeland. Israel was thus established by law and hence its population is not ‘illegal’.It is surrounded by larger countries many of whom want it obliterated (as no doubt do you). It cannot afford to take in large numbers of Muslims as this would change its demographic and threaten its existence. This is not racism. In 1984 the long persecuted Ethiopian Jewish Community was threatened with rape of its women and enforced slavery so Israel went and clandestinely removed this community and took them to live in Israel, here’s a couple, I don’t think any body is going to bother them,
            Anyway you feign concern about the camps in Israel when there is not doubt in my mind whatsoever that you support such institutions in the UK. Here’s part of the description of the Israeli camp
            “The detainees have cellphones, wear their own clothes and laze about in the common areas outside the trailer homes, talking and playing Eritrean music next to the basketball courts.”
            Here’s a comment on the UK equivalent
            “People familiar with the conditions at immigration removal centers in the UK have described them as “proper prisons” with abominable conditions such as lack of medical care, physical abuse and illegal indefinite detentions.”
            Israel does what it can for Syrians

            So there’s my opinion, you go back to listening to the Horst Wessel Lied, I’m sure it makes you feel better.

          • peter6218

            Yes and we all know where you are coming from. You wish to destroy my land and my people and your greatest concern is for the people of another foreign land.

          • Shorne

            ‘My land and my people’ well there’s delusions of grandeur. You are a powerless, politically impotent ultimately rather sad individual who spouts wild hyperbole and yearns to live under a Nazi regime. Well mate it’s my land too and one of the many things I like about it is the way it has welcomed refugees. By the way the 2011 census showed Britain to be 80% White British with some regions over 90%.

      • GB

        Well that a digression but I can’t see any arguments here, or
        at least I don’t think a personal experience stands for a strong argument, if it stands for an argument at all. This is what I was taught at school and I believe there are good many reasons why personal experiences cannot stand for arguments in discussion. I also don’t know what you mean by ‘rubbish’. Perhaps it wasn’t perfectly phrased but then it was to make a point not to impress. I also can’t see myself being an apologist for the Nazis. In fact I am convinced that the worst ideologies humanity has had experience with is fascism together with its younger offspring – fascism, communism and islam. But then it is a well-known practice of certain group of people not to use arguments but to try to offend
        you. That doesn’t bring us closer to any conclusion but probably they feel better. It’s childish but we are so used to it we even don’t point it out.
        Obviously there are no more people suffering that much in
        any part of the world than those living in muslim countries, especially if they are not muslim. With that alteration I can agree on that point. However if you think that Islamic jihad is a bit overrated and impression that islam is a barbaric totalitarian ideology created by a mentally ill person is false, then please notice that since 9/11 there were well over 20.000 (twenty thousands) terror
        attacks all over the world. You can find some data here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Islamist_terrorist_attacks#2010s,
        though for the full list of all attacks you need to browse a little bit.
        I don’t know what do you think happened to Lee Rigby, Charlie Hebdo staff and thousands of people killed by islam. I guess you think it has nothing to do with the religion of peace, and I find it ridiculous. Ridiculous because it means you not only trying to deny facts, not only ignore history of islam and teaching of islam, but you deny all these knowing that tomorrow another Lee Rigby may be
        killed in London, or another hundreds of girls will be raped in Rotherham, or another institution criticising islam will be silenced because of terror spread by that religion. And that terror is spread in our cities not because a legion of ISIS warriors invaded our countries, but because we let them invade our cities. More muslims in our cities means more miseries for people living here.
        If it comes to those migrants or refuges, or whatever they are, taking into brackets their barbarian ideology that destroys their countries and destroys our culture, when I see hundreds of young males screaming ‘allahu akbar’ while attacking police in Hungary, Slovenia or Greece, demanding this and demanding that, as if it was something we owned them or they earned by hard work, I call it simply rioting mob on which, like on everyone else breaking law and public order, the law should be enforced to restore the order. These are the same people who came to our countries years ago, and thanks to whom now in our democracies some people need
        to live in hiding, press can’t publish what the press should publish, your freedom of speech is limited, there are places in our cities, where we are not allowed to go because we are white Europeans, people in our capitols are being killed, girls are being raped but still
        half of the population prefers to pretend it has nothing to do with the
        ideology supported by the perpetrators. As you may not be aware of, democratic liberal society doesn’t grow on itself; it was a hard work of many generations of people, many of whom died fighting for
        it, some of them in Europe as recently as 1980s, and many more are still dying because they don’t have the luxury given to you by your forefathers. You were lucky enough to be born in a free democratic society, thanks to the effort of those people and it would be kind of you, and those of your kin, if you didn’t try to destroy what you received without any effort and leave for our children and our children’s children if not a better society, what you are anyway not
        able to do, then at least society in which they can have the same freedoms you enjoy at present.

        • Shorne

          You have to deny the validity of personal experience because all you have to set against is unthinking prejudice.

          My experience is I suspect greater than yours insofar as I have sat down and talked to jihadists as for most of my working life I was a Probation Officer and spent the last 13 years of my career working in a prison. Radicalisation was a problem and nobody worked harder to combat it than the prison Imam and his assistant. I live in a North London Borough where 40% of the inhabitants were born abroad. My wife is Jewish and obviously so are my children. They went to school with children from rich mix of backgrounds including Muslims some of whom remain friends and my daughters have even accompanied them of visits to their families abroad. There has never been a problem with this from their families. By and large people just want to get along. The exceptions to this are obviously Jihadists on one side and people like you on the other. For example in Bradford a while ago the then MPs Ward and Galloway were whipping up anti-Semitism loosely disguised as anti-Zionism. At the same time Bradford’s last synagogue was due to close because the dwindling Jewish population could not afford to maintain it. It’s still going because the Muslim population raised the money needed to repair it. Having spoken to Jihadists and listened to their twisted logic and read the HAMAS Charter I know exactly what they are like so don’t you dare suggest otherwise.
          I was amused when you mention ‘another institution criticising islam will be silenced’ and ‘press can’t publish what the press should publish, your freedom of speech is limited’ when nobody seems to be impeding you from doing so.
          Oh and I glanced at that list of attacks, in the one year I looked at closely 60% of them were directed at Muslims.
          You mention ‘no-go’ areas, name one.
          Also are you aware that one of the victims of the awful events in Rotherham has expressed the wish that people would not keep mentioning them when making political points? Not that this has, or will stop the likes of you.
          Having been born only 5 years after the end of WW2 I am very aware of the sacrifices made. Which included those made by the 500,000 Muslims who fought with the British Army, winning a number of Victoria Crosses in the process. The officer in charge of some Indian troops at Dunkirk was Court Martialed for disobeying an order to basically abandon them. Instead he got them out on the last ship to leave.

  • Skyeward

    Libraries help equip people to help themselves -this library will make an impact. Yet why oh why can we not create foreign policy across North American and European nations to tackle the problem of third world elites refusing to distribute economic gains more equitably and refusing to manage their population growth. Oh yeah, neo-liberalism. That’s why.

  • teepee

    Message received and understand: these people are every kind of wonderful, far too good for us in fact. So why not get tough with us, encourage these paragons to go elsewhere, deny us their society that we don’t deserve. It’s the only language we understand.

  • Doug1943

    We need to discriminate.

    We should be donating books and computers to the kind of people featured in this article, and delivering 30 mm rounds from A-10s to ISIS and similar.

    I can only do the former, but cannot find a way to contact the charity except via Facebook, which I do not wish to use. Is there an email address at which they can be contacted?

  • Leo McKinstry

    So 2950 of the Calais migrants in the Jungle seem to have no interest in the library. Actually make that 4950, as I hear that the number of campers has risen to 5000. And if most of the library visitors are Francophone and eager for French reading material, why on earth so desperate to reach Britain? Perhaps they understand a few English words: “benefits”, “council housing”, “community”, “welfare”.

    • mr_fatty

      They are more interested in finding work. BTW: They can’t try to pinch your job while being dole scroungers at the same time, can they? Those are the 2 most comment objections, and they contradict each other.

      • Leo McKinstry

        There is no contradiction at all. Many migrants from outside the EU do come to work; indeed, one of the problems with mass immigration is that it drives down wages. But the pretence, so vociferously peddled by the pro-immigration brigade, that none of them are attracted by our generous, needs-based benefits system is just absurd. Rates of welfare dependency and economic inactivity are far higher in the migrant communities from outside Europe than in the British population.

        • mr_fatty

          How many of them are actually aware of our benefits system, such as it is? Very few, I think, and for the most part they wouldn’t be eligible anyway.
          And by the way, immigrants don’t drive wages down. Employers do. Foreigners, particularly brown ones, are a convenient scapegoat for tabloids and their readers.

  • www.numacalca.ro
  • SchtenGraby

    But both things can be true though can’t they?

    That there are some good people in Calais who want to better themselves and might deserve some support to do so (as we would wish for support ourselves in similar situations)
    the fact that it is almost certainly not a good idea to keep the doors ope and to encourage more people to come.

    It’s a bit like I might be hospitable toward someone who was down on their luck and needed a meal, but I probably couldn’t afford to do that for 100s or 1000s of people.

    Being kind costs relatively little on an individual basis.
    But sometimes you also need to be cruel to be kind on a mass scale.

    Both things can be true…